Meeting Sergei – Sergei Polunin
Meeting Sergei

Meeting Sergei

The Ballet Association is a group of enthusiasts supporting the Royal Ballet company with regular meetings and interviews with dancers and other company members. The group holds an annual dinner to which Royal Ballet dancers are invited. Contributions are made to the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.

In 2009, the Ballet Association invited Sergei Polunin to their January meeting.  This is the report of that meeting.

Meeting Sergei Polunin, Soloist, The Royal Ballet

Interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 14 January 2009.

Upon meeting Sergei, DAVID BAIN WELCOMED Sergei Polunin and began by asking how he got into ballet.

Sergei is from a city with no ballet history in the Ukraine.  His mother put him in a little ballet school when he was three. He did that for six months. The following year he began gymnastics which he did for two years. By the time he was six he decided to do it professionally so went to a professional gymnastics school doing studies from 8 a.m. to 12 and gym training from 12 to 6 p.m. He’s been used to hard work from an early age. Sergei enjoyed it a lot.

The pollution was bad and wasn’t good for his lungs where he trained so his mother suggested he go back to his little dancing school. When he was three his mum had donated a little carpet to the school and he found it still there on his return. His friend was auditioning for the Kiev ballet school and his mother thought it would be a good idea to move there. She was a guiding force in his ballet career but always asked if he wanted to do it. So aged nine he joined the Kiev school with two friends. At this point he’d never seen a ballet. He’d only done classes up till then which he enjoyed as he loved training and working on his body. The first ballet he saw was a local Ukrainian version of Carmen which he much enjoyed.

He was in Kiev for four years and was two years younger than the others in his class. Originally all his friends at gymnastics were smaller and he said he wanted to stop growing which he did! When he got to the ballet school everyone was taller. Initially his teacher said he saw potential but he didn’t have such a great body because of his gymnastics. He was put in a class with older students but he’s always liked older people as they were more interesting so it was no problem for him to be the youngest in class.

One memory from Kiev school was going to the theatre and being put in the opera.  He also did acting and modelling class which he couldn’t understand but his mother thought it all helped with the ballet. At age 12 she thought they should move again.  They went to Leningrad where he auditioned and was accepted but said he didn’t want to take up the place. He didn’t say why but it was because he felt more scared of academics (which he’d heard were difficult there) than ballet, and wanted to stay in the Ukraine. The following year his mother decided they should all move to London by which time his father was working in Portugal and his grandmother in Greece to support Sergei in Kiev.

A couple of weeks later his father sent him an application form for the Royal Ballet School.  It was completed and returned. They heard nothing for a while and then the reply came that they were very happy to accept Sergei and underneath was written the sum of £32,000. Because they didn’t understand English they thought he’d been accepted but would have to pay that amount which they couldn’t afford so they gave up on the idea. But a couple of months later when the form was translated they realised that the Royal was looking for sponsorship for him for that amount.

It was really down to his teacher’s dog that his application went forward. The dog met his English teacher on the street and the humans started to speak as a result of which his sponsorship was found. His mother remained in the Ukraine when he came to England where he was the only foreign student in his class at White Lodge. Aged 13 he went straight into the fifth year so once again everyone was much older. But it was a great and enjoyable change for him – he’d always wanted to go where there were boys but the opportunity had never come up as he was always with his mother.

At White Lodge there were six boys in a room having fun and he got used to it very quickly and didn’t miss home after a week. From the dance perspective the difference in Russia was that you are made to do things.  Here you have to be self-motivated.  That makes you a stronger dancer as no one pushes you if you don’t do it. Some Russians fall apart because of the pressure but here the facilities are wonderful.  But you have to know where you want to get to. Some of the boys weren’t perhaps pushing themselves. David said here that Steven McRae had commented that he had been surprised that some didn’t put in the effort – did he find that? Sergei thought they generally worked hard.

Sergei, who is now 19, went to the Upper School when he was 14, still the smallest boy. The facilities were amazing and his teacher, David Peden, was very supportive and helped him a lot. They had fun and went to the Prix de Lausanne and Russia together. He’s a very funny guy and Sergei thought his own technique would never improve as they were always laughing in class! As he was so young he stayed longer than usual in Wolf House, which was normally for first year students. This was a good decision by Galina.  Otherwise he would probably have gone out every night getting up to mischief!

David relayed a story told him by Joan Seaman who with her friend was watching Sergei in class. Her friend said afterwards that the teacher, David Peden, was always picking on Sergei.  Joan said quite rightly that that was because he was the one with talent. Sergei said that in private they were good friends but in class it was different and David would pick on him and put him down in front of the other boys. In his first year at the Upper School aged 14 Sergei did Don Q variation with the Russian school who joined them for a school performance.

The previous year Sergei had also won the Grand Prix. He’d also achieved gold in a competition in the Ukraine and was looking forward to a week of rest when on day four someone invited him to go in for the competition. Normally it’s hard to get a US visa but somehow it appeared within 24 hours!

He went on to New York and danced the Acteon solo and Nutcracker and a contemporary piece by himself and a Ukrainian friend which had been created for the Ukrainian competition on the actual day. At the time it was only half finished, he didn’t really know the music and this piece had no name. His mother had mentioned high emotion and his friend thought that was a good title. He just went ahead and danced it almost making it up as he went along. A very famous choreographer asked him where the piece came from as it was very unusual choreography! For the Grand Prix he worked on it and changed the name.

Although he won the Grand Prix he didn’t accept an offer to go to ABT2 or the main company as the Royal offered him a place. It was a very hard decision to make. He was told it was easier to make progress at ABT whereas he’d be in the corps at the Royal but he thought he would try the Royal which proved the right decision as the following year he was promoted. Just before the Grand Prix he’d won the Prix de Lausanne where he went with his teacher who was very strict and wanted arrangements to be precise, emphasising that Sergei mustn’t be late arriving.

On the first morning they were sitting on the bus thinking there were 30 minutes to go.  When they arrived at a beach, they realized they’d taken the wrong bus! With five minutes to go they caught a taxi.  Sergei put on a number and ran in front of the judges. It was very hard as everything has to be just so – classes, rehearsals, contemporary, classical and a perfect performance for the judges. Teddy Kumakawa was the last dancer from the Royal to win. Sergei said he hated competitions but they were important for a dancer to succeed. He knew he had a contract with the Royal when in the Ukraine with broken foot. Disagreeing with the teacher, Sergei jumped as high as possible to try to get his attention and landed badly. He was in Upper School for three years.

Sergei joined the company in 2007. He was thrown on as Bronze Idol in Bayadère when he felt his body wasn’t really ready. In the third act he didn’t know there was a screen in front of the stage. During the stage rehearsal Sergei jumped right into it! After that he wasn’t used for ages so was a bit upset.

Sergei had a meteoric rise in the company. At the end of his first season he was in Dances at a Gathering which was very prestigious. It took a year to get the role. He’d learned it as cover and a couple of weeks before the performance he was told he was doing the Brown boy, a big role. It was wonderful and he really enjoyed it. Rehearsing was difficult but the performance was great. He then began to wonder if he’d be promoted to First Artist or not when he heard he’d been made Soloist which was amazing.

Sergei has done both roles in Nutcracker.  Once as the Prince which was more his style, and also the Nutcracker which is much harder. He’s now rehearsing Solor in Bayadère.  It is a much more interesting role. Acting skills are required which he finds less easy than dancing.

David thanked our guest for a fascinating evening. It was great to host a young dancer who had done leading roles in his first/second years with the company. Anyone who thought there might not have been enough to talk about was quite wrong! It was a great experience.  We all looked forward to following his upward progression over the next few years.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Melissa Hamilton, Sergei Polunin and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2009.

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